By DANNY McARTHUR / Daily Journal

OXFORD • Mississippi’s best and brightest welcomed modern leaders in technology to the fourth annual UM Tech Summit at the University of Mississippi Wednesday.

The half-day-long event took place at the Gertrude Castellow Ford Center for the Performing Arts and was free and open to the public.

Keynote speaker David L. Cohen, the senior executive vice president and chief diversity officer of Comcast Corp., summed up the message of the day by saying that with each passing decade, the pace of change is increasing.

“Change is like an avalanche: once it starts, watch out,” Cohen said.

U.S. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai was the guest government speaker and said that the FCC was doing what it could to help close the digital divide. He said it was important to make sure new technology is accessible to rural places like New Albany and Pontotoc, and praised the late U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) for his efforts in pushing bills that helped fund telehealth centers and encourage broadband.

“In my work at the FCC, I’m trying to build on this strong foundation laid by Sen. (Roger) Wicker (R-Miss.) and the late Sen. Cochran, and I’m proud to say the FCC has made significant strides in meeting this goal. We’re promoting leadership and the next generation technology and closing the digital divide,” Pai said.

Interim Chancellor Larry D. Sparks welcomed U.S. Sen. Roger F. Wicker (R-Miss.) as the honored guest and recognized his effort in establishing the tech summit. Wicker addressed the room by saying some of the brightest minds were in attendance.

“This (summit) is an opportunity to see where we are heading in science and technology. Everywhere we look, connectivity and technology are shaping the future of our planet,” Wicker said.

Wicker pointed to the recent 50th anniversary of the moon landing as an example of the role Mississippi has already played in American achievement. Stennis Space Center, located near Bay St. Louis, was where the first rocket stages were tested. Wicker said that Mississippi would play an additional role in more space discoveries. By 2024, NASA plans to send the first woman and another man to moon, and hopes to follow that up five years later by sending the first person to Mars. Wicker cited additional innovations, such as driverless cars and graphene, a material that is thinner but stronger than steel, as research that Mississippi can play a role in advancing technology.

Cohen said the future of the US depends on the nation creating bipartisan partnerships to encourage a bigger focus on STEM and keeping a free and open internet. He pointed to the mismatch in Mississippians often living in rural areas while most healthcare is located in urban areas and said there was an urgent need for telehealth. He mentioned Comcast’s own ties to improve connectivity in Mississippi: Comcast started as a small cable system in Tupelo in 1963, and through its Internet Essentials program, it has connected more than 8 million low income Americans, which includes more than 100,000 in Mississippi.

“We’re bound and determined to do everything we can to continue to close the connectivity gap within our footprint,” Cohen said.

The day also featured panels on broadband, technology and society, and technology and the workforce, student speakers discussing the possibilities of virtual reality, role internships play in development and research studying the physiological responses of Esports, and ended with a fireside chat with Jim Barksdale of Barksdale Management Corp. and Andy Lack of NBC News and MSNBC.

Panelists and presenters included Jamey Assey of the NCTA-The Internet & Television Association, Robert Fisher of Verizon, Mayo Flynt of AT&T Mississippi, Hu Meena of C Spire, Bill Cook of Infrastructure Consulting, John Godfrey of Samsung, Kevin Martin of Facebook, Milo Medin of Google Wireless, Brian Xu of LinkedIn, Kagan Coughlin of Base Camp Coding Academy, Jordan Noone of Relativity Space, Dick Scruggs of 2nd Chance MS Inc., Senior Policy Advisor to Gov. Phil Bryant Laurie Smith and Alan Sudduth of Chevron.

University of Mississippi students Anna Katherine Burress and Hannah Newbold, Olivia Lanum, Gunner Rhoden and Silvio Valladao also spoke.

“This year is a quantum leap in terms of the subject matter and the lineup. It’s just unbelievable,” Wicker said.